Beauty and terror essays on the power of painting

As always, the means are what count. Johns’ painting is clearly assertive: what does it say? Again, why turn the American flag into a painting? Why turn a painting into an American flag? For Johns, the impulse was not just some passing fancy, a short-lived whim. On the contrary, he did so insistently, repetitively, year after year: more than ninety times in all. Yet the other two versions of 1955 do most to bring Flag itself, the catalyst of the series, clearly into view. The first is Flag Above White with Collage. Here encaustic again transforms snippets of newsprint into stars and stripes. Now, though, two elements are added: the white field or ground that supports the flag, and the found strip of I. D. photographs of a unknown white man visible in the stripes along the right edge. Unlike Flag’s half-buried snippets, its presence is overt. As Johns said of it, “that’s a very deliberate kind of thing clearly left to be shown, not automatically used, but used consciously.” If we ask what Johns was consciously using—what is represented by the field and the photographs—the answer, as so often with Johns, takes shockingly literal form: whiteness and male identity. We might even take the unknown man in the photo strip as a figure of the citizen, its quasi-ideal.

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The other painting of 1955 is the colossal White Flag; it is double the size of Flag. What makes this version different? The title telegraphs what is new. Now being white defines every step in the logic of the image, starting with its surface and moving out from there. Now the noisy must be hidden, safely plastered flat. Now there is no avoiding the work’s assertive ambitions, as if whiteness demands an increase in scale. And now there is a decided loosening in the handling of the newly blanched surface, with the result that at certain crucial junctures in the images–the points of several stars, for example–drips occurs, as if the design itself is leaking or bleeding or weeps. Where a national whiteness is concerned, not least for a state in the throes of an endlessly belated racial integration, all these terms might seem able to assert their claims.

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Both these images lead directly back to Flag. What no one has so far noticed about this much-studied painting is the origin or purpose of ten raised white letters that curve along the lower right arm of the bottom left star. Large enough to read, they spell out “ITED STATES.” What matters even more is how they were made, and what the blue wax surrounding them conceals. They are raised letters on an embossed government seal lying just beneath the surface, and that seal seems to sit on a passport page of an unknown white male, who, we learn, is married and weighs 182 pounds. He too is a citizen—the citizen, duly inscribed and certified—a national ambassador authorized to leave the country, and then return “home”. His presence seems essential to Flag. So is his place within the fabric of the painting—precisely where, in this national image, we would expect him to be.

Essays on the Power of Painting but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure, is the terror of beauty
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Enter Lisa Siraganian once again: for her, is being a deliberate painter the same as being an allegorical painter? Surely this question would not be a worry, given the lengthy western tradition of visual allegory, if it did not bring with it the much more sweeping anxiety that, as she so vehemently puts it, “post war’s reliance on the language of literary convention has generated an impoverished language of art.” In contrast to the pre World War II generation–Picasso is its inevitable exemplar–the artists discussed in A House Divided fall into the trap their elders so successfully avoided. Alas, since 1955, artists have “written with words,” whereas Picasso, bless him, knew that color and drawing were all. Am I wrong in thinking that Siraganian feels the same way?

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Does Johns offer a prospect of redemption? A way of being a good American? An American one can mean to be what she is? Maybe. There are other Johns’s, after all. Wagner never denies that there is also the Johns of False Start (1959), in which the mismatch of colors’ names and the patches of color that support them (or articulate their names) replaces the tautological with the arbitrary (or aleatory—the difference doesn’t matter right now) and leaves the sensuous facture in place (along with skepticism about its suitability as a vehicle for expression). Different as it looks from the Johns of Flag, this Johns offers just as good a critique of expression—once we see paint-handling as (the work of) a device and see the relation of our propositions to our world as arbitrary, our freedom is trivial, as nugatory as it was in the realm of tautology and sensuous seduction. There is still no viable account of expression in sight and nothing to be convinced of. This arbitrary or “open” relation between the work of composition and the experience of the receiver/beholder/audience is as coercive, as controlling, in its own way as the tautological mode.

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Taken together, Wagner’s claims regarding the artist-world nexus, the nature of historical awareness, and Johns’s preoccupation with things or materials as opposed to only images amount to a decisive reconsideration of what might constitute an historical-materialist account of art making and thus point to an essential intervention in the interpretation of post-war art. But, to return to the question of whiteness, Wagner’s account of Johns, despite itself (and despite its intelligence and perspicacity), comes up relatively short on certain historical matters. In her chapter on Warhol, Wagner takes us neck-deep into the muddy waters of American history and describes in detail how she understands Warhol to have imagined himself and other Americans in relation to this history. She does the same in her chapter on Kara Walker, an artist I have written about, in a consideration of her work alongside that of the artist Michael Ray Charles, to whom Wagner also briefly refers. In the Walker chapter, Wagner considers the controversy generated by Walker’s art and she maps the codependent staging of blackness and whiteness in her silhouette works. In both accounts, Warhol and Walker, history and medium (or media) are treated by Wagner as equally material, and her argument consequently and captivatingly resembles the elaborate handwork of Johns, whose snipping, tearing, waxing, collaging, and painting serves, as Wagner writes, as a metaphor or enactment of historical processes but also, I would add, as a template for the work of deep historical inquiry, where grand hypotheses coexist with laborious data-gathering and messy lab work.